By LARRY LAGE/AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – Michigan coach John Beilein refuses to panic.
“The sky is not falling,” Beilein insisted
The fourth-ranked Wolverines (23-5, 10-5) are coming off an embarrassing loss in which they blew a 15-point lead that allowed last-place Penn State to win its first conference game of the season.
Michigan gets a chance to bounce back Sunday at home against rival and ninth-ranked Michigan State.
Beilein does acknowledge February was not “kind” to his team.
The Wolverines lost four of seven games last month after winning 20 of their first 21 games and climbing to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for the first time in two decades. During the slump, Michigan got beat by 23 points against the Spartans and likely ended its Big Ten title hopes by losing Wednesday to the lowly Nittany Lions.
Beilein, though, is not about to change his style by screaming at his players.
“What they need right now is positive reinforcement,” he said. “We’re going to watch very little of Penn State film, and move on.”
The Spartans (22-6, 11-4) have been losing, too, dropping two straight games for the first time this season.
Those setbacks haven’t dashed the proud program’s shot at winning the conference championship because top-ranked and first-place Indiana lost at Minnesota on Tuesday, cutting the Hoosiers’ lead in the standings over Michigan State and Wisconsin to only a game.
“There’s a crack in the door,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s not wide open, but we are going into the last week of the season still playing for something.”
Michigan, which has slipped to fifth place, will be playing for pride against its rival after getting routed at the Breslin Center and to keep its school-record, 16-0 record unblemished at the Crisler Center.
To win, he Wolverines will need Tim Hardaway Jr. to play much better than he did in East Lansing.
Hardaway matched a career low with two points, on a layup early in the second half, and missed 10 of 11 shots.
“Some shots I took were wide-open shots and I just didn’t knock them down,” he said.
Like Beilein, the junior guard is trying not to sound concerned about how the Wolverines have fared lately.
“I wouldn’t say this is the lowest point,” Hardaway said. “It’s a learning experience.”
Michigan State also has a junior guard, Keith Appling, its hoping will respond to adversity with a strong performance. Appling matched a season low with three points last week against Ohio State and was even worse on the other end of the court, letting Aaron Craft dribble past him consistently to score a career-high 21 points.
“I think he’ll bounce back,” Izzo said. “He’s never, ever struggled defensively like that.”
The Spartans have had a week to take a break mentally and physically while working on their flaws to prepare for their final three games. After playing at Michigan, they’ll close the regular season by hosting the Badgers and Northwestern and hoping Michigan beats Indiana next Sunday.
“I hope the time off helps us,” Izzo said. “I don’t think just playing Michigan should bring the best out of us. But the fact that we’re playing to stay in the Big Ten race and in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA should provide plenty of motivation.”
Instead of focusing on the challenge Michigan State gives Michigan, Beilein is trying to stress the importance of taking advantage of a chance for his young team to learn from its mistakes to get better when it matters most this month.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to keep growing,” Beilein said. “This is fertilizer for growth.”
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